REVIEW: Escobar: Paradise Lost

26 06 2015

EscobarDespite what the title might imply, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is not really a film about Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  The name must have its roots in a marketing meeting because Benicio del Toro’s titular figure shows up about as often as Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

For the uninitiated, writer/director Andrea di Stefano provides a little more information about the drug lord than season 3 of “Entourage” can give.  In lightly sketched detail, Escobar’s appeal to the dispossessed in his country becomes a little more clear.  Whether willfully or naively, the film implies most Colombians remained in the dark about his lucrative illegal enterprises but were not asking questions so long as the money kept flowing.

The true protagonist of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” Josh Hutcherson’s Canadian surfer bro Nick Brady, encapsulates this journey from tentative acceptance to fearful resistance.  Nick falls in love with Escobar’s niece while working in the forests near the Colombian beaches, and he graciously accepts an offer to work on the family farm rather than face harassment from armed thugs.  He suspects something might be awry with his relative and employer but remains silent, to his ultimate detriment.

Josh Hutcherson in Escobar

Rather than structure this realization in a strictly linear fashion, di Stefano slightly shakes up the order for a more engaging experience.  Especially considering the tensions Nick faces with his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) over getting involved and moving in with the drug magnate, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” could have played like a Latin American edition of “Foxcatcher.”  The film opens with Escobar sending Nick on an assignment that involves taking out the associates that help him carry out the task, then flashes back to answer the question posed by the opening line of “Birdman” – how did we end up here?

Once di Stefano establishes the background, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” becomes purely Josh Hutcherson’s movie.  The vast majority of the narrative centers on his struggle to complete Escobar’s charge as ordered, grappling with his conscience as well as his own status as a mere expendable pawn in a scheme much bigger than him.  The action plays out like a pulse-pounding thriller with real human consequences, and it actually proves quite gripping.

Credit di Stefano for crafting that tension in the editing room with David Brenner and Maryline Monthieux, but Hutcherson himself is also equally responsible.  In his first post-“Hunger Games” role (“Red Dawn,” shot back in 2008, does not technically count), the 22-year-old actor cleverly chooses a character that marks an ever-so-subtle departure from his well-known role as Peeta Melark.  Nick, in many ways, fulfills the same damsel in distress archetype as he must cower in fear of retribution from Escobar.

Yet unlike Peeta, who must rely on Katniss to swoop in and save the day, Hutcherson can exert resilience, agency, and perseverance through his character.  As he seeks to move out of the YA world and into more adult roles, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” shows that Hutcherson does have the goods to crossover.  And even though the title might not tout his character’s name, it is Nick’s strength – not Pablo Escobar’s – that makes the film such a thrill rush.  B / 2halfstars

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